NEW YORK — The graceful pen and ink lines of the illustration belie the horrific violence of its subject: an SS officer kicking and whipping a naked woman tied to a metal sawhorse.
Titled “Torture,” it was secretly drawn inside a Nazi concentration camp and is now part of “VIOLATED! Women in Holocaust and Genocide.” The art exhibition is the first of its kind to focus on the sexual violence that occurred during the Holocaust. In some respects, it is a #MeToo for Holocaust survivors.
“This exhibition is groundbreaking since it is the first one to deal with sexual violence against women during the Holocaust and genocide,” said Dr. Batya Brutin, an art historian and the exhibition’s curator.
Opening April 12 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in SoHo, the show includes 47 works in a variety of media and styles. The artists, who come from Israel, the United States, and several other countries, were victims, witnesses, or close relatives of victims. The show will also feature works representing the wars in Bosnia, Darfur, Iraq and the Rwandan genocide.
“The idea to show art from other conflicts is so people to pay attention and realize this didn’t end with the Holocaust. We may all be numb to this kind of violence now, but it is still going on and we have to be alert to it,” said Ronald Feldman, the gallery’s owner.
Women were subjected to persecution unique to their gender during the Holocaust, according to recently declassified documents at the UN War Crimes Commission Archives.
They were vulnerable to rape, sterilization experiments, and forced abortions. They were forced into sexual relations for food or other necessities. Yet, sex crimes weren’t classified as war crimes until the 1994 International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda.
There are multiple reasons why the topic of sexual violence during the Holocaust has received little attention, said Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, founder and executive director of the New York-based Remember the Women Institute and the exhibition coordinator.
For one, male survivors and historians largely shaped the narrative.
“I remember years ago giving a workshop at Yad Vashem and a scholar stood up and said ‘Jewish women were not raped during the Holocaust.’ You’re telling me you can find instances of rape in the Bible but between 1939 and 1945 there was a hiatus on rape?” Saidel said.
Additionally, many female survivors who gave testimony did so in the presence of other family members. They didn’t want to discuss their abuse. They may have felt ashamed, they may have felt they were protecting their family by remaining silent, or some combination of the two, Saidel said.
Other survivors took the sexual violence for granted. They considered it to be just one more unendurable moment in an unbearable situation.
Back in in the 1980s when Saidel was working on her doctorate at State University New York (SUNY), she visited the Ravensbrück concentration camp. At the time she was focused on highlighting the camp’s Jewish population, a part of the camp’s history she said was glossed over. Because she was determined to tell the story of Jewish women imprisoned in Ravensbrück she said she didn’t pay attention to questions of sexual violence.
“I rarely asked them about sexual violence. When women did come forward about sexual violence it seemed an anomaly, as if rape was incidental to being a prisoner,” she said.
The quest to learn more about this topic began around the turn of the 21st century, Saidel said.
Conferences about women and the Holocaust, including sexual violence against women during the Holocaust, took place and memoirs and books about the topic were published.
“It was clear that the question of sexual violence needed to be more thoroughly investigated as part of women’s experiences during the Holocaust,” Saidel said.
There has never been an art exhibition about sexual violence against women during the Holocaust, Brutin said.
In her 2000 book “Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation,” author Andrea Dworkin wrote: “Why isn’t a raped woman the symbol of the Holocaust — and why isn’t rape part of all the exhibits in all the museums and all the memorials?”
In 2015 Ronnie Sarnat’s documentary “Screaming Silence” was released. In the film Holocaust survivors talk about sexual violence, some of them for the first time ever.
In 2010, Saidel, together with Sonja Hedgepeth, published “Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust.”
“Almost every single one of the women [in the Holocaust] was sexually violated one way or another. They were all forced to be naked in front of the guards at the entry process and some went through far worse — they were raped,” Saidel said.
That moment is depicted in Judith Weinshall Lieberman’s “Women in the Holocaust,” which will be on display in “Violated!”
As the child of a Holocaust survivor, Friedman, an Israeli multimedia artist, deals with politics, the Holocaust, and society’s treatment of the “Other” and the human quest for self-realization, according to her website.
Also on display is “Double Jeopardy” from Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman’s Holocaust Project. Chicago’s interest in the Holocaust started in the early 1980s and was more fully realized when she married photographer Donald Woodman. The artists embarked on the project after realizing they didn’t know much about their Jewish heritage. According to Chicago’s website the couple spent eight years on the project.
As an art historian, Brutin said she hopes visitors leave the exhibition — which runs through the middle of May — with a better understanding of sexual violence against women during the Holocaust as an integral part of the Holocaust narrative in general.
“I would also like to evoke people’s attention to what is happening today by integrating artistic representations of later genocides in the exhibition,” Brutin said.